As we all hunker down, obey mandatory stay in place orders and restlessly, but wearily wrestle to avoid going “plumb stir crazy,” a little levity is in order. Make no mistake, there is nothing funny about these circumstances and the multiple crises we are facing. In these days of the COVID-19 pandemic, our country relies even more heavily on the leadership of elected and appointed officials at all levels of government. It seems governors are currently under the most scrutiny. How should we view and evaluate the vast differences that are obvious to all conscientious observers of the daily actions of these various state governors? It is obvious cultural differences are on full display! Some governors are seen as diligent, serious leaders in the classical sense, while others appear to pander to popular opinion and steadfastly ignore science and unassailable facts. While there are no absolute standards to apply, experience has taught that the perspective offered by looking at how past governors performed has great comparative value. It can also make things a lot more fun!!
Perhaps Mark Twain’s character Huckleberry Finn summed up my present concerns best: “Hain’t we got all the fools in town on our side? And ain’t that a big enough majority in any town?” Rhetorical questions? Read on!
I offer this essay partly out of sheer boredom. I honestly don’t have a damn thing to do- it’s been too wet to plant a garden this year and the fish aren’t biting. I write it as a lasting tribute to “Fake News,” and as a parody of cultural biases. As a born, bred and unapologetic Southerner, I have birthright license to be critical. I use literary license and the age card as excuses to occasionally be a tad reckless. The folks highlighted here were not chosen- they simply “distinguished” themselves! My personal guiding principle on who and how to critique? Pretty simple-spare no one: “If it can be made to fit on a skewer, go ahead and take a poke at it.” I got my basic instincts and picked up the vernacular on the farm way before I knew anything about sports, girls or politics. As my grandfather used to tell me, “Son, if you’re going to brand it do it now- the iron’s not going to get any hotter.”
So, I submit the following as a sarcastic statement that I hope conveys mock seriousness:
I hereby resolve to never again listen to the colorless ramblings of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo. He comes off as a stern, tragically-disturbed, failed actor who daily forces himself to mouth a whiny soliloquy, while not realizing it is being beamed to millions of astonished, confused and fearful viewers. This guy has the temerity to analyze the data, act accordingly, and tell the truth. Furthermore, when he does not know the answer to a question posed by an aggressive reporter, he has the audacity to simply say, “I don’t know.” What kind of leadership is this? Worst of all, he always sits up there and comports himself as if he is giving us, his “students,” a lecture. It is so obvious that he smugly believes none of us capable of passing his “crash course” unless he grades on a very generous curve. He drones on and on, while I inexplicably feel compelled to sit and studiously listen, and dare not get up off the couch, even for water or a bathroom break, until he officially dismisses us.
Yet, he does have some redeeming upside, as he looks a lot like Ben Stiller. Or, rather, like Ben coming straight off a six-week drunk with no make-up and a full scowl. His brusque manner and animated rants make him sound a lot like a character portrayed by Ben’s actor father, Jerry Stiller, who also served as George Costanza’s father on Seinfeld and Carrie Heffernan’s father on The King of Queens. The passing this week of this brilliant actor and comedian evokes sadness, but also oh-so-many marvelous memories. Beamed right into our homes for more than a half century, his diverse comic routines, movies and, especially, recent decades of long-running serial roles made him seem almost a part of all our families. He helped bridge generation gaps and cultural differences in families and society alike. He never failed to fulfill the classic comedians’ mantra to “leave them laughing.”
But back to Cuomo! For all his irritating shtick, he actually seems to be rather harmless. Still, I recognize how depressing, irritating and burdensome his daily dictums had become for me; I know it is vitally necessary for me now to quarantine myself even further. I shall immediately stop watching and listening to his spiel. So there- I can reclaim my life! How exhilarating! Truth be told, under current situations, this simply means a little more reading, more television shows (Netflix a plus!) and a lot of old movies. Fortunately, I often find something enticingly “topical.” Anyone up for the 1979 classic movie, “The China Syndrome,” with Jane Fonda and Michael Douglas? No? Too much Chinese-themed drama with apocalyptic overtures? I agree. Perhaps all dystopian plots or themes related to Armageddon should be shelved for a while, as well. So, how about some lively, uplifting comedy of Stiller and Meara re-runs? It never gets old!
I do recognize I am blessed. It would be so much worse if I were a resident of the state of New York, cooped up in my tiny brownstone apartment knowing my future was largely dependent on the likes of professor-uh, sorry- Governor Cuomo.
But fortunately, I am not.
Instead I live in a region traditionally filled with colorful leaders who, as we are fond of saying, “put the hay down where the goats can get at it.” Lesson number one, Governor Cuomo: down here in the hinterlands we prefer to take our medicine with a little honey, and our politicians with some genuine style and humor.
Take, for instance, former Texas governor “Ma” Ferguson’s insightful view on one of the hot issues of her day, “If the King’s English was good enough for Jesus Christ, it’s good enough for the school children of Texas.” I’m sure talk like this would leave even the brashest-talking New York governor speechless.
Or going way, way back right here in Mississippi, our own then newly-elected governor Ross Barnett was fielding a whirlwind of questions from the press regarding state and regional issues. Amid this swirl, somehow arose the international issue of the conflict surrounding the tiny islands of Quemoy and Matsu in the Taiwan straits. Communist mainland China was at war there with Taiwan, which was backed by the United States. But even if the governor could have acquired state-of-the-art political radar, I’ll guarantee you this stuff wouldn’t have been on it. A national press reporter shouted out to the unwitting Governor Barnett, “Governor, what about Quemoy and Matsu?” Ole Ross reared back and confidently declared, “I don’t know the gentlemen, but I’m sure we can find a place for them over in the Game and Fish Department.” Go figure! Two small islands in the stream of war and international intrigue, standing in as appealing applicants for employment in the frenzy of wheeling and dealing for jobs in this shiny new administration. Southern hospitality truly has no limits!
Honesty and transparency have always been the hallmarks of our beloved Southland’s leadership. Take for instance former Alabama governor “Big Jim” Folsom, who was known for his fondness of good Bourbon whiskey with a little branch water, as well as for sins of the flesh. When confronted by a smart aleck reporter who inquired about these proclivities, Big Jim quipped, “Anytime you bait a trap with a good-looking blond, brunette or redhead you’ll catch ole Jim every time.” Governor Cuomo’s predecessor, governor Elliot Spitzer, would have served himself well if he had only followed the shining example of “Big Jim’s” honest confession. (Please see, also: Congressman, New York; Weiner, Anthony- No, wait! Don’t look!)
And of course, the most quick-witted of all our Southern governors was Louisiana’s former Governor Edwin Edwards, who once said of his opponent, Governor David Treen, “He’s a bit slow: it takes him an hour and a half to watch Sixty Minutes.” Or perhaps his most profound statement came when he extolled the virtues of eating oysters as an aphrodisiac, “I ate a dozen last night, but only ten worked!” I can’t really see Andrew Cuomo topping that, although he does seem to have a penchant for over-ordering “supplies” that could have been put to better use.
When the current outbreak first showed its ugly face, our own governor Tate “Taterhead” Reeves’ first public comment was to fearlessly declare, “Mississippi is not China.” I’m not exactly sure what the hell that meant, but it had some resonance, because the following day Alabama’s blue-haired, matriarchal governor Kaye Ivey echoed that theme in her own inimitable, closer-to-home way, declaring, “Alabama is not California.” Now, I don’t know about you, but I’m relieved to know I’m not Chinese (biggest crisis averted- Ole Miss and Miss State can remain in the SEC!) I’ll also bet our cousins in Alabama of the Republican persuasion were glad to know they don’t have to share the values of Californians (well, Nixon and Reagan excluded, of course).
As Southerners we have our own special kind of leaders, who are uniquely prepared to deal with crises like the ones we are presently facing. Ain’t no virus going to mess with us, least ways, not for long!
Now take Georgia Governor Brian Kemp. (Pause to not fully steal Henny Youngman’s “Now, take my wife” joke here!) Think back not too many days ago when Kemp said he had only recently learned that the virus could be spread by human contact. At the time he said that, the entire world was in a lock down. Of course, the CDC (Centers for Disease Control), had been issuing warnings and directives for social-distancing for months! The CDC headquarters are in his capital city, Atlanta, but somehow the governor still didn’t get the message? Now the governor has decided to ignore all recommendations from all sources and open the state up for business as usual. Don’t you see it is vitally important that nail salons, massage parlors, and tattoo establishments get back to work? Got to protect those tattoo artists- that’s essential to the cultural survival of the nation!
But perhaps, in all due fairness, at least one CAN come to understand Kemp’s “tattoo thing” here. One need to look no further than a controversial grant recently awarded from the “vitally urgent” pandemic stimulus/bailout. $25 million was sent to the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. Follow the money- get the connection! You just know Kemp is itching to say, “Tattoos are the heart and ink is the blood of Southern art. Our tattoo artists are the performing maestros of modern redneck culture!”
There may be another stimulus coming, and naturally, he does not want Georgia or the South to fall too far “behind” the cultural or funding curve in combating the virus all across our region. Now, thanks to Brian, Georgians getting tats truly do “have some skin” in this “cultural,” but also socio-economic-political, game!
And I’m left wondering why wrestlers performing their art are being dissed here! They are throwing more shade at them than that laid down by Haystacks Calhoun tangling with Andre the Giant outdoors at 5 pm on a sunny summer day. I say dad-gum it, “performing arts” by any other name, rassling be thy game! Wrestling is an art and a science! And real!
Yet this may be the perfect time to express my gratitude to Governor Kemp and his constituents. It had seemed like forever that whenever updated national lists of “the worst, or lowest, or most shameful things” came out, folks used to derisively say,“thank God for Mississippi.” This image as the perpetual doormat was a heavy blanket to breathe under. Now Mississippians can say with proud relief, “thank God for Georgia.”
I’ve never met Georgia’s Governor Kemp, but I am confident in my assessment of him. I was richly informed (and entertained) by all of his campaign commercials, and my experience, instincts and imagination can extrapolate from there. Apparently, he drives a pick-up truck with a shotgun and two rifles attached to a rack in its back window. No problem there, for in my younger days I did as well; but he uses these props as weapons to cement his good ole boy credentials. In that same vein, it is likely there is a pistol in his glove compartment, along with a more than adequate supply of ammo and homemade deer jerky. If his vehicle is anything like mine, empty beer cans rattle on the floorboard, from which emanates that sickly-sweet smell of his ripened brew mixed with the scent of BBQ pork rind residue. His dog (we’ll call him Tuffy), purported to be his best friend, rides in the bed of the truck. Now that dog might not hunt, but it’s likely his sniffer works just fine and tells him this seating arrangement stinks all the way to high doggy heaven. Errrbody knows a genuine good ole boy insists his dog ride in the cab! Rumor has it he used to sport a bumper sticker that read “Don’t blame me, I voted for Jeff Davis,” but he had to remove it once he got into politics, because it might be offensive to a certain element- you know what I mean? Nonetheless, he carefully cultivates the image of a redneck to prove his solid connection to “the people.”
And, as already noted, his approach to the so-called pandemic does not exactly square with the good Dr. Fauci. In fact, don’t be shocked if in the coming days you see the governor right back on TV addressing his constituents about COVID-19 and ending with a rousing piece of pseudo-medical advice, “If you don’t mess with it, it probably ain’t gonna mess with you.”
The white people of Georgia (is that PC- or should it be “people without color,” or just “dull and duller people?”) love and trust his every move. But you have to understand, the reason they are infinitely confident is because they know his every decision and every move is driven by Faith. No, not that kind of faith. I’m talking about Faith, his secretary, who kinda looks like Ben Stiller’s actress mom, Anne Meara Stiller (who guest starred for nine seasons on The King of Queens, and married her “real husband” in one episode, for real!)
Good ole Faith programs the good ole Guv every day about what to do and say, and more importantly, what not to do or say. I’m talking EVERY detail of EVERY move. Now, I’m not one to pedal a conspiracy theory that all of these Southern Republican governors are merely programmed “Stepford Statesmen,” marching to the tune of brilliant wizardesses. No sirree, not me! But my cousin from Tupelo sure as hell is! Now, according to him (note here- he will admit to drinking a bit, except when he’s drunk), Faith has worked, well, faithfully, for the state of Georgia for 42 years.
But Faith only assumed her current, lead role in 2003, when the state elected its first Republican governor in more than 140 years. Of course, it is entirely understandable that after that many years out of power, there was urgent need for expertise from an experienced and practical hand. Basically, Faith had all that, plus unbelievable ingenuity and gumption. She just dug in, did everything perfectly, and has run the state ever since.
In the ensuing 17 years she has controlled things for the three consecutive Republican governors. What’s more…take a deep breath- or a mighty big swig…there’s a whole blame network of these, ahem, “executive assistants” throughout the region propping up these gubernatorial GOP elephants (try not to visualize this!). In fact, Faith’s sisters, Hope and Charity, are part of this creed, and actually run two of these other Southern states. (My Cuz swears Charity is the spitting image of Ben Stiller’s older sister, Amy!) Faith trains all the ladies in the Creed and helps them to not only set the agenda for their respective governor, but also to decide what legacy to seek for each.
So, for example, when the Guv of Georgia isn’t in the same location as his Faith, and gets himself into a tight spot (quite often!), he calls her. If he’s hung up in a really tight spot, say in a meeting or a TV interview, he texts her. If he can’t call or text, he fakes illness- or uses the old reliable excuse of hoarseness- or simply explains he has to “run take a leak.” Hey- tell me you haven’t done the same kind of blame thing!
All Georgians know that Faith is a good-hearted, level-headed sweetheart and one really smart cookie who thoroughly knows, loves and understands Georgians. She is generally at least three steps ahead of the political crowd and two ahead of the average Joe and JoAnn. She simply “handles things.” She solves problems and just makes things work right for the whole state. Most of it really just involves good common sense and a wise woman’s touch. And the fine folks of Georgia are “all good with that.” So, of course, Georgia citizens will follow Governor Kemp’s lead, and obey his orders with respect to their health and welfare. Hell, they know his every move is based on Faith!
Now honestly, I really have nothing against Governor Kemp. He’s actually probably a mighty fine fellow. If he’s anything like the persona he puts forward, he’s welcome to come over to Mississippi any ole time. He can even bring his pup Tuffy if he lets him “ride shotgun” up front- he can “hang” with my bird dogs! Shoot! We’ll fish, hunt, play cards, drink and tell stories all day and most of the night. We will treat our guest so many different ways he’s bound to like some of them. He’ll feel right at home, cause we may just have more Bubba’s, Billy Bob’s and Betty Lou’s per capita than, well, anywhere else in the world! In fact, if he should ever get tired of governor-ing (or the folks ever get tired of him) his Republican brother and fellow governor Taterhead might discover there’s still an opening or two over at that renown landing-place for job-seekers, the Mississippi Game and Fish Department. But no matter what, I can assure him this; no one is gonna whisper a word of any of this to his Faith. We respect the hell out of her, and we don’t ever go looking for no trouble, especially with women.
If the history of Georgia teaches anything of note it is no matter what kind of hare-brained and crazy-sounding crap its governors do, things still seem to find a way of working out just fine.
One of Georgia’s former Governors, the Honorable Lester Maddox, gave out ax handles at his Atlanta restaurant, while in the midst of the Civil Rights movement. And no, this was not some sort of “stimulus” for the timber and wood craftsman industries. Perhaps the wisest thing Governor Maddox ever said (at least in public) was during a crisis in the state’s penal system. He gracefully opined, “What our state prisons really need is a better class of prisoners.” While I cannot attest his performance was “par for the course” for the checkered history of Southern governors, it may have been just one bogey short of it.
Legendary former Georgia Governor Eugene Talmadge proudly boasted, “There’s only three things the good people of Georgia can put their trust in- Jesus Christ, Sears and Roebuck and ole Gene Talmadge.” My take is if this were true, at least he got the order correct. Can any of today’s politicians offer three absolutes of this quality?
Early in the dewy morning following the 1948 elections, Georgians awakened to find they had elected three (yep, count them-three) governors. Pundits said they had hit the trifecta. The courts had much more to say.Ultimately, several burly agents from the Georgia Bureau of Investigations actually had to man-handle and then drag the losers out of the Capitol. You and I both know dang well that none of this would have ever happened if “Ms. You Know Who” had been there to keep things straight.
Many Georgians have come to almost proudly say, “Isn’t this who we really are? Or at least what we have become? Off kilter, of course, but always coming out smelling like a rose!” Do not attempt for even one minute to assign this to coincidence! After all, Georgia’s state flower is the Cherokee rose!
But Georgia has always been considered the South’s cultural, if not political, leader! Do you actually need additional “fer-instances?”
For many years the Poet Laureate of Georgia was a sportswriter. Yep, a dang sportswriter! His name was Lewis Grizzard. He loved his UGA Bulldogs, and their fans loved him. Thousands upon thousands of babies were named for him-yep, including more than a few girls! Dogs, cats and quite a few bars took his name as well. He also was an accomplished author, with such works of literary genius as, “If Love Were Oil I’d Be About A Quart Low,” and my favorite, “Elvis Is Dead and I Don’t Feel So Good Myself.” On second thought, maybe this honor wasn’t so crazy-I think he more than deserved it!
And does it not strike anyone else as strikingly, peculiarly “special” for the Georgia Chamber of Commerce to brag, and even advertise extensively, that such half-rotten peaches of the cinema as “Deliverance,” “Smokey and the Bandit” (I and II), “Abraham Lincoln and Zombies” and “Your Mother Wears Combat Boots” were all filmed in the countryside of the Peach State? Well, I suppose it is a business. I close my eyes, envisioning and, yes! hearing Jimmy Durante, Burt Reynolds, Sally Fields and the Honorable Lester Maddox tap dancing while Mr. Durante leads the crooning, “There’s no business, like show business!” Well, it’s still like no business I know!
All of this aside, and despite Georgia’s colorful history of questionable (ok-crazy) politics and governance, on numerous occasions it has been the lodestar for the entire nation, and especially to its comrades (confederates?) in the South. One of Georgia’s governors was even elected president some forty-odd years ago. His name was Jimmy Carter. But, in today’s world his brother Billy might prove to be a far more acceptable and exciting candidate!
Jimmy was a nuclear scientist, former governor, distinguished veteran and ultra-successful businessman and farmer. Surely impressive, but Billy will always be remembered for being the first “First Brother” in the White House. Billy was an unpretentious, lovable character. I believe Hazel, the bowling maid for the Baxters, had an expression that might best encapsulate his essence- “He was a real Doozy!” He was a down-home, but daring and dashing entrepreneur and early-adopter of thinking “outside the box.” He was a “dreamer’s Dreamer” who preternaturally knew his time was much better invested on “dreaming and scheming” rather than toiling in regular jobs. To his credit, he never expected or ever looked to his country for help. In fact, he is,recognized as a daring pioneer in reaching out to foreign countries to secure personal funds, which tested family bonds and the bounds of the law. Billy and Sam Adams were cut from the same cloth. They were both beloved patriots and have beers named for them. Billy Carter was “Billy Beer,” the original “Duck Commander,” the first true American Anti-Hero and the GOAT “Dude” long before any of these terms ever became cultural catchphrases. Ultimately, and unfortunately, he was today’s Everyman born way before his time.
Georgians are resourceful and know how to adapt to hardships and changing times- even pandemics. You’ve heard time and time again what they do if you “give them lemons.” They also sell “silk purses” derived from sows’ ears, as well as “Southern Souvenirs” such as mosquitoes in little bottles and cotton by-the-ounce in teeny-tiny bags to Yankee tourists on their way to Florida.
So, leave it to entrepreneurs from Climax, Georgia, a fine little rural community of happy and contented folks, to become the first to bootleg colorful scarves allegedly endorsed and “worn on TV” by Dr. Deborah Birx. When this was shut down, they trumped themselves by selling “Dr. Fauci’s Miracle Masks.” The Feds also got hold of that one. (I still have just a few-call me!) Their biggest money-maker had no problems with “truth in labeling.” Their brilliant product development and asymmetrical marketing ploy enabled them to successfully foist an “improved, value-added, water-soluble, disposable, virus-free” toilet paper that carried a quite hefty price premium. What drove the “marketing miracle,” in addition to the uber-hype to gullible consumers? Well, most notably, the product was named and proudly labeled after their lovely village: “Climax Tissue.”
But really, maybe what drove sales is similar to what sold millions of cans of Billy Beer- the product was great for novelty and gag gifts, keepsakes, and most definitely, conversation-starters. Now, about that “truth in labeling” thingy? Well, not surprisingly, at last check no one has come forward to complain that Climax Tissue has not worked as advertised. Sales remain brisk, tourism in Climax has risen rapidly, and social-distancing is still a breeze in this little piece of paradise. As a matter of fact (and please-I really want to keep this hushed up) I am seriously looking at buying some gorgeous property right on the fringe of Climax. You see, I’ve got this little idea about bottling and selling water from the pure, natural springs there. Now, if I could just come up with a “home-run” brand name for it. Well, I am sure it will come to me!
On another positive note, Georgia remains a state proud of and knowledgeable about its country. Other states these days may sneer regarding the teaching of traditional “Civics” in the school systems, but Georgia still does a bang-up job. In a recent survey, a surprising 78 % of its population not only knows, but easily quotes the passage, “We the people . . .” A whopping 97 % also know this iconic phrase (that often serves as a rallying slogan) comes from “one of our republic’s most cherished documents.” Next, what about knowing which document and why it is important? Well, not so much, only 17 %. When asked directly about the Constitution, 39 % identified the 9th amendment as “the one that gives Gomer Pyle and everyone else in this great country the right to make a “Citizen’s Arrest.” Of course, when asked what their biggest concerns were, the coronavirus and the struggling economy were at the top, right? Nope. Survey says, “enumerated powers” and “Posse Comitatus” came in first and second. Surprisingly, finishing a distant third was “Who will be the UGA Bulldogs quarterback this Fall?” Do I really need to repeat here, “Thank you, Georgia!”?
Yes, Georgia has historically set the standard- not only for the South, but for the entire nation- for stumbling into success. And trite or not, nothing succeeds like success! So, in conclusion, I offer my advice to our deeply beleaguered country. Why not, once again in a time of unprecedented turmoil, divisiveness and crisis, reach out to a native son of the South and proud son of the South’s own Empire State to lead us to higher, safer and even more-blessed ground? Let us all get behind Georgia’s inept, lame, but well-intentioned Governor Brian Kemp and elect him as our president! As President Trump loves to say, “I mean, what in the hell have you got to lose?”
They have done it once; I feel certain all Georgians will be proud and willing to again sacrifice their esteemed governor for the common good of the entire republic. For they are patriots all, and just know in their hearts that things will be all right at home. And well they should. But you already know that, and you already know why. Well sure you do!
They will still have their Faith.